Monday, 27 December 2010


I'm going to be taking a holiday from the blog for the next few weeks, but will be back by the beginning of February at the latest (if it works - the last time I decided to take a holiday Jim appeared, and I started a whole new kind of activity...). I thought I would sign off for the year with these gingerbreads made by my niece. Creativity or what??

Saturday, 18 December 2010

disappointing yourself

As I was looking at some books on painting on the internet yesterday, I began to see how restricted I am within my own vision. It's partly a reaction to a succession of bad art teachers in my early adult life, and some equally off-putting experiences when I tried again years later. It's partly a personality trait, a tendency to feel oppressed by what I see as the interference of others in 'my business'; a strange kind of independence that makes me feel crowded by other people's agendas. Sometimes that urge towards independence results in some interesting ideas, but I'm not sure it works like that in painting. What I could see yesterday was how, if you don't get input and fresh stimulus from outside, you become self-referential, tame, circular.

Partly, you just can't see how to do it differently. You can't usually come up with something that new - even the new emerges out of the 'well-worn channels' of your historical trajectory, and is constrained by the emerging styles and habits of your recent activity. Partly, in my case, I suspect it's also a fear of disappointing myself. Not disappointing other people, not  a fear of being ridiculed, or written off by those in the know. Avoidance of breaking out, of taking risks in new directions, seems to be an unconscious attempt to avoid the hollow resonance of yet another set of marks coming out in a disappointing way. Which is quite ridiculous. What kind of risk is it to make a wild line over a soft colour, to scratch roughly on something smooth? I suppose the risk is to that fragile sense that the shape already in the stone is quietly beginning to show its outline; that the outward flow of colour and form that has just occasionally not offended in recent months will be stopped in its tracks by the emergence of the unsubtle, the ugly, the brutal.

David Reilly talks about people orienting and running their lives in relation to personal maps. These maps come from society and culture, from parents, from experience. Unfortunately, we mostly can't see such maps; we run our lives in relation to their layout and instructions without even being aware of it. These cartographies are partly aural; we listen (as if our lives depended on it) to that chatty little critic on our shoulder who tells us what we can't do, or where we shouldn't go. And they're also partly verbal (though in our heads); we talk them into being, half-consciously, unconsciously ('I can't possibly give this job which is crushing the life out of me, I must be sensible and think about my pension'....).

Unseen maps constrain, block, constrict. They lock you into endless circularity, at least until you're able to see that they're there. I'm running some kind of map about the marks I make, or, more particularly, about the marks I don't make. What is that map? How can I learn to see it? The only hint I  have at this stage is what Reilly suggests in terms of checking out the existence of your maps. The place to start, he says,  is any place of suffering. Where there is suffering, there is a map. Where there is frustration, stuckness, limitation, safeness, pointless repetition, there must surely also be a map.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


It occurred to me this morning that one of the reasons that drawing and painting are so difficult is because you have completely invent what you're doing. Every day, every time. When you start learning to draw or paint, your focus is on accuracy; on training your hand and eye in relation to learning the properties of materials. I would argue that this has to be done - that your inventions will suffer in the future if you haven't learnt something about the nature of light, shade and space, as they exist in the physical world. I suspect that people would argue against me here - there seems to me to be evidence that some artists have not focussed on this kind of learning, and arguably it doesn't affect their art at all. I guess they would say.

But even if you do set out to do this kind of learning at the start, at some point, you're going to start thinking a bit differently. My previous post on Matisse's 'exactitude is not truth' explored one aspect of this. Even if you're concentrating on improving your accuracy and materials skills, it's eventually going to dawn on you that you're inventing everything, even if you're trying your best to make your graphite create something that looks like a photograph. At some point, you're going to see colours where someone else would say there was only white, or you're going to decide that a slight distortion improves your composition. Many people gradually move away from the accuracy of their training, and begin to explore aspects of shape and colour that somewhere, once upon a time, they saw (though perhaps as likely in a dream as in the visible world) but for some purpose other than trying to photographically represent that shape and colour as it was originally seen.

And that's exactly why it's so hard. Because every day you have to reach into yourself, and at the same time  reach out into the world, and create an entirely new space. You have to actively frame some aspect of a momentary experience; work something into being from an instant's unbounded consciousness in a physical world of light and space and feeling. Every day you have to find the courage to try to fix a trace or capture a feeling. It's so much easier to wash the kitchen floor.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

collective drawing

At a recent meeting of the creativity group, we decided that we were going to experiment with tonal drawing; focussing on looking hard at an egg on a white piece of paper, and exploring its tones without the use of lines. In the preamble to doing this, talking about people's different experiences of drawing, someone suggested that before we start on the egg, it might be good to play around with pencil and charcoal. At this, she whipped out a roll of lining paper and stretched it out on the coffee table. Everyone put the sticks of graphite and charcoal they had brought on the table (it's amazing how many people in the group seem to have secret stash of materials, despite apparently not having done a great deal of creative work in recent years...) and the group, as one, just started drawing. We were like a flock of birds suddenly seeing food on a bird table on a wintry morning. As natural as breathing... when only minutes before, the business of 'drawing an egg' had been causing some people a bit of anxiety...

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

funky paintings

Sarah Mann was one of the original members of our creativity group, but she moved away earlier in the year, seeking the sea. She's just sent me these two gorgeous little paintings.  I find it absolutely amazing to see what starts to come out of people as they begin to focus on their creative work...

Monday, 29 November 2010


Snow covers the world, bringing everyone back to themselves. We're so used to being stretched out, pulled in multiple directions out there in social space and then suddenly we're forced to settle back within ourselves.  Elaine Aron talks about some people being too 'in', and others being too 'out'. Literally - spending too much time 'out', running around, always with people, not taking time to settle quietly. Or too much 'in', wrapped up in an internal world, forgetting to reference and open to the outside.

It seems to me that creative pursuits, whatever they may be, help to bring those of us with a tendency to be too 'out' back to ourselves. When I've been too dispersed, spending all my time on work, on chores, on meeting obligations, even socialising, something starts to feel wrong in my body. But as soon as I go back to painting, or reading about painting, or drawing, or otherwise working with the colours and forms, that something starts to relax. As it relaxes, it begins to grow, to flourish. Whatever 'it' is, it isn't  internal; it takes in the world, flows into the world, taking me out of myself, and connecting me to it in a completely different way.

Self-consciousness seems to work in the same way. It stretches you out of yourself, until you're standing on the other side of the room, watching yourself, criticising, finding fault. Barry Green in  The inner game of music talks about self 1 and self 2. If I remember correctly, self 2 is the one that sits on the other side of the room, making judgements, pulling you out of yourself, and preventing you from being able to connect to what self 1 is trying to do. Self 1, if you can allow it to breathe, is not 'selfish' or isolated. It's a portal; a deep root tapping into the endless sea that is music, a sea which anyone can swim into, whatever their level, if they can only learn how to get rid of self 2.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


Why do I not have anything to say on my blog for over ten days, and then find myself with an idea every day for a week (three came this morning...)? This is an example, to me, of the workings of human consciousness - in the Indian philosophical sense of mind, body and emotion; the whole of experience - as a complex adaptive system.

When there's been no blog posting for a while, certain pathways begin to decay, or perhaps only to function on some level below conscious awareness. Different aspects of life - internal, external, distributed, focussed, self-organising, accidental - weave in and out of each other, and for whatever reason, the blog is not part of that changing landscape.

But once a post has occurred, suddenly the blog becomes a part of all those shifting, emerging patterns. A thought, instead of occurring and decaying almost instantly, or perhaps being written down in a private notebook, starts to build itself like a snowball. The sense of the blog becomes part of a set of active constraints, which mould and shape various events and interactions as they occur through the day. Eventually, a post appears, seemingly of its own accord, as it's never forced, or crafted from a starting point of intention....

Friday, 26 November 2010

exactitude is not truth

Jim raised an issue about realism a while back, which is something I think about a lot, and Matisse's phrase 'exactitude is not truth' seems to have planted itself in my mind. What Matisse said is this:
Among these drawings, which I have chosen with the greatest of care for this exhibition, there are four - portraits perhaps - done from my face as seen in a mirror. I should parrticularly like to draw these to the visitor's attention.
These drawings seem to sum up observations that I have been making for many years on the characteristics of a drawing, characteristics that do not depend on the exact copying of natural forms, nor on the patient assembling of exact details, but on the profound feeling of the artist before the objects which he has chosen, on which his attention has focussed, and the spirit of which he has penetrated.
My convictions on these matters crystallised after I had verified the fact that, for example, in the leaves of a tree - a fig tree, particularly - the great difference of form that exists among them does not keep them from being united by  common quality...
Thus there is an inherent truth which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented. This is the only truth that matters.
I struggle with the idea of truth, anywhere, and yet a philosopher friend of mine also has me almost convinced that, actually, and perhaps especially after postmodernism, something called truth matters a great deal. I don't like it as it's being used here, because it seems to suggest that things have an essence, one that's waiting to be 'discovered', or, in this case, perceived by the artist. This passage also makes me think of Plato's forms, which of course I don't understand, but I retain an uncomfortable impression of an argument for the existence of something Real-which-we-cannot-see; which in turn makes me think of all the Hindu and Buddhist arguments for a Real behind appearances. Those based in Hindu and Buddhist traditions tend to say that those schooled in Anglophone traditions can't begin to get what this means (for example, the translation of the Sanskrit term maya as illusion is arguably a red herring for an Anglophone mind...).
But Matisse is trying to say something important about drawing, and all those obsessions about 'getting a likeness' etc.
The four drawings in question are of the same subject, yet the calligraphy of each one of them shows a seeming liberty of line, of contour, and of volume expressed. Indeed, no one of these drawings can be superimposed on another, for all have completely different outlines..... Nevertheless, the different elements which go to make up these four drawings give in the same measure the organic makeup of the subject. These elements, if they are not always indicated in the same way, are still always wedded in each drawing with the same feeling - the way in which the nose is rooted in the face - the ear screwed into the skull - the lower jaw hung....even though the shade of expression varies in each one.
It is quite clear that this sum total of elements describes the same man, as to his character and his personality, his way of looking at things and his reactions to life, and as to the reserve with which he faces it and which keeps him from uncontrolled surrender to it.
It is thus evident that the anatomical, organic inexactitude in these drawings, has not harmed the expression of the intimate character and inherent truth of the personality, but on the contrary has helped to clarify it.

...Each of these drawings, as I see it, has its own individual invention which comes from the artist's penetration of his subject, going so far that he identifies himself with it, so that its essential truth makes the drawing. It is not changed by the different conditions under which the drawing is made; on the contrary, the expression of this truth by the elasticity of its line and by its freedom lends itself to the demands of the composition; it takes on light and shade and even life, byt the turn of the spirit of the artist whose expression it is.
L'exactitude n'est pas la verite.

Do we buy this? I can't decide. I do agree that the line doesn't have to accurately represent the three dimensional object. However, if the artist is going to draw a figurative element that calls to mind something that can be seen in the visual world, and that is likely to be familiar to the viewer, then it seems to me that the line has to be convincing in some way. Convincing doesn't mean accurate to nature. But it means that the mind of the viewer accepts the image, however distorted, rather than tries to reject it (which I have to say my mind does with quite a bit of Matisse's work...).

Perhaps Klee said something a bit more subtle:
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
This seems to leave space for exactitude or not - what matters isn't how accurate, but perhaps whether the drawing brings an object to attention; arresting the tendency of normal vision to sweep past something miraculous that it doesn't bother to stop to see??

All quotes from Chipp, 1968, Theories of Modern Art UCP

Thursday, 25 November 2010

can't steer without a centre

Stephen Nachmanovitch always has something to say about whatever I'm thinking about. Thinking yesterday about life decisions, about getting caught up in endless cycles of instrumentalism and strain, I open his book this morning and read the following:

As living beings, we are naturally self-regulating and self-balancing, but in addition we have consciousness, with its attendant functions of pride, selective awareness, linear thinking, and ego maintenance. The profound difference between these two tendencies involves us in certain contradictions and difficulties.... In a healthy feedback system, trial and error have an easy, flowing relationship, and we correct ourselves without a thought. Most of the body's feedback loops are unconscious, for the very good reason that continuous judgements of value must take effect without delay, interference, or clenching caused by ego attachment.

...The extra piece that consciousness puts in is the attachment of ego to one side or the other. The ego wants to be right, but in the dynamics of life and art we are never right, we are always changing and cycling. This attachment to one pole of a dynamic cycle sets us up for all the afflictive emotions: anger, pride, envy. If one pole or the other exerts an inordinate pull on us, we can't steer because we have no centre.... On the other hand, if one pole holds something we fear, we will run in circles around ourselves to avoid it.This prolongs the fear endlessly. If I am obsessed by a thought or a pain, the only way out is to go right to the sources of the pain and find out what piece of information is dying to express itself.

...Underneath procrastination and fidgeting lies self-doubt. Self-doubt appends a litte superscripted 'but on the other hand, maybe not'  to every impulse we have. We then find ourselves gnawing on each decision, changing course, retracing our steps again and again.

Consciousness may interfere with a naturally self-guiding system not only through pride but through desperation as well. It can be profoundly depressing to seem to be off-course all the time. Blake said, 'If the sun and the moon should doubt, they'd immediately go out!'

...The fundamental thing about vicious circles, by definition, is that there is no logical way out.... Fortunately, there are a number of non-logical ways out. Before we look at these we need to look at what underlies the vicious circles - fear.

 Nachmanovitch 129-130, 131-132

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


I remember when I started my thinkpic site, a friend suggested that there might be something going on there in terms of what he called 'legitimacy'. As in, not feeling that it was legitimate to simply do painting without any particular focus in terms of reward or ambition. I thought about this, but rejected it at the time, because at that point I was loving the simplicity and unpretentiousness of just playing with colour and form, and also the focus provided by the challenge of trying to make an image that articulated someone else's words or idea. Thinkpic work seemed to cut through all the problems of 'the art world'; the questions I had found so intractable (like, what's art? what's not art? why is that art and not this?), and the impossibility of finding a reason for such an apparently useless pursuit.

But as time has gone on, I've found myself needing a break from that kind of exploration. It is, after all, still a form of work. I'll come back to it.  But however interesting such challenges may be, and however preferable to endless preparation and marking, they're still aligned to other people's agendas. As I've calmed down from needing to see evidence that a new life was possible if I gave up my academic career, I've begun to see that you can't just replace an old set of demands with a new set, however much better that new one might align with long-suppressed feelings and desires.

Two people have said to me recently that if things seem to be all over the place, sometimes you just have to stop and start again. I've never given myself permission to do that. When one type of work came to its natural conclusion, I never said, hang on, what do you really want to do here? Instead I looked back over what I'd done, and tried to work out how I could create something new from the starting point of those skills and experiences. And fast, in a kind of panic, as if I had to earn a full salary every month (or at least be enrolled on a new degree), without taking a breath. No wonder that after some 30 odd years of this breathless instrumentalism I was eventually forced, by my neglected and abused soul, in the guise of my physical body, to stop and start again....

It's hard to stop, once you've got a momentum. But stop I have. And today I had a conversation with a musician about how work tries to fit in with being an artist or being a musician, and I suddenly saw it all a bit differently. It doesn't matter what progress you make, how hard it is, what the hell you think you're doing in your art or your music, what matters is that you have to live it. We both started off doing that, so what changes? He pointed out that the life of an artist or a musician is chaotic, and unstable. After a while of that, you can feel drawn towards something more stable, something with an income, something that isn't quite so hard. And then, once you've had a taste of a stable life, as he put it, you become seduced by it. Then he said something that really struck a chord - 'you enter into that stable life with a feeling of resentment, that you then suppress and re-channel into your work'. Ha! Why do I recognise this so immediately??

His solution was to find a job that didn't engage that creative energy and commitment (burning as resentment, re-ignited as passion and involvement in that work) but to keep the two clearly separate. To find something relatively interesting and rewarding, but something that you left at the door at five o'clock. And, crucially, given that you have to find something that at least seems worthwhile, not to get too involved in micro-managing your work environment, trying to improve things, generally being gung-ho. The micro-managment and improving you save for 'your artform'.

Of course I've heard versions of this before. But there were some subtle details in here that made it a much more nuanced plan than the usual advice about work that funds your creativity. This view takes account of all sorts of internal energies and tendencies, and suggests how they might be better separated and directed.

What has this got to do with legitimacy? I suppose that the discussion affirmed my 'right' to need to make my images; it acknowledged that it may be the case that some people actually have to do their art, or their music, in order to live their life in a state of balance and health. Even though I've been send this message so clearly by my physical body, I still somehow struggle to make mental and physical space for the legitimacy of my activity. It's bloody weird.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

artist's way group

About the time I started this blog, I also circulated this flier to a few friends and aquaintances. To my amazement, eight people, including one unknown person via the local library, responded.

At our first group, we decided not to work our way through Julia Cameron's book, as apparently many groups do, but to find our own way a bit more freely (though a number of us were reading her book). Within a couple of meetings, we decided that we wanted to do something together, not just talk about our own private projects.

For the first session of this, we played with inks and paints, watching how colours ran together on different kinds of paper. Next time we stabbed needles and coloured wool into polystyrene balls, finding out about a particular kind of felting. Then we did poetry - one member of the group offered to find poems on a theme submitted by each of us, and the next time we met, we read and talked about these poems. Then we tried learning to write haiku, over a couple more sessions. And, after that, we learnt to draw cartoons.

Buy this time, everyone had been prised out of their comfort zone at least once. Some people had bad memories of art teachers sighing, or scrawling all over their attempts. Others felt at sea with words, and even more at sea expressing private, personal feelings.

Our next project was to take a month to produce something, anything, on the theme of 'Autumn'. Ta da! (as they say in annoying girly bloggy things). The Stirling Artist's Way collective proudly presents.....

Monday, 8 November 2010

habit, repetition and novelty

I've been thinking about what Jim said a couple of posts ago about habit...

With 4 office moves in 5 years I'm getting pretty tired of shifting the furniture around. The thing with these suggestions which are supposed to make us all more creative and keep our minds flexible is that they take up time and attention. If we go on holiday we have all the time the holiday provides to do all kinds of new and stimulating things. But I'm sure you've noticed what happens when you go to stay in a foreign country for a while: you don't try to keep everything up in the air all the time, that would be exhausting. We seek routines and stability to make us feel secure and to allow us to focus on what really matters. In many ways it's habits that make a home not bricks and mortar. Maybe I'm wrong, perhaps creativity is all about making a habit of having no habits... sounds like a recipe for madness to me though!

There seems to me to be something very important in here about habit, repetition, actually narrowing constraints, your field of vision, which is the opposite of the equally interesting idea about forcing yourself into the new. McNiff talks about the value of working on a series, doing some small, contained thing, over and over, and about the surprises that can come out of working in this way.

This idea links to something else that's been in my mind for a long time, which is the idea of repetition and novelty. My father first suggested this to me as his theory of art, of what appeals to the human brain aesthetically. I've since discovered that someone like Derrida talks about something very similar. With my fascination for forms in nature, I realised that this is exactly what's so arresting about many natural forms - that there's a rhythm, a repetition of some basic idea, over and over, and yet each bit of the recurring pattern is just slightly different from any of the others. You can see this  in this photo from the New Scientist of ice:

Or in the patterns on a shell, or inside a cabbage...

Saturday, 6 November 2010

challenge or arena?

Someone suggested to me recently that I had perceived the challenges of the art world so acutely when I was younger that they had overwhelmed me to the point of being unable to work. In contrast to now, where I can read about the life of someone like Matisse, and simply find it interesting (and, actually, somewhat bizarre)...

This remark seemed to contain something of wider relevance, particularly in relation to one of the key focuses of this blog, which is exploring the nature of blocks to productivity. A number of the people I know seem, secretly, and at a very deep, important level of themselves, to want to make music, draw, write poetry, weave colours etc. And yet mostly, we haven't done these things. Not only have we not done them, but the not doing seems to have done nothing to banish the instinct, the yearning, even over many, many years.

We talked yesterday at our Artist's Way group (report on which to follow soon) about the link between how you think about what you're about to do and what then happens. Not in the sense of becoming embroiled in an intellectual discussion as an excuse for not getting round to actually doing something, but in the way that Betty Edwards describes in Drawing on the right side of the brain. She suggests that people who are not experienced tend to draw what they think a nose or an eye or a vase looks like, rather than properly looking and actually seeing the way that a nose is formed by the falling of light and shadow. Similarly, does the way we see or think about what we want to do creatively actually determine the outcome?

The shift from seeing art as an insurmountable challenge to seeing it as an arena for exploration seems to have changed everything for me. I don't think I've made the shift with music, though, which is equally important to me, and which I'm currently unable to handle....

Thursday, 4 November 2010

'secrets' again

Article in the Saturday Guardian, 30.10.10, entitled: 'The secret to being creative' (Work section).

Although you might believe certainty and control over your circumstances brings you pleasure, it is often uncertainty and challenge that bring the longest-lasting benefits...

And a series of bullet points:

1. seek out the new
Kashdan's dawn-till-dusk challenge involve inserting novel experiences into the daily routine to open the mind. You could listen to a new kind of music over breakfast, swap your usual newspaper for a different perspective, lunch with someone you don't usually speak to, visit an exhibition you would normally steer clear of and learn a language  or cook an exotic meal instead of turning on the tele when you fall through your front door

2. embrace new views
talk to people who may have a completely different way of thinking about an issue... instead of automatically looking at a situation from your usual stand, take a look from a different perspective whether its an unwelcome comment from a colleague or the war in Afghanistan

3. reinvent your desk
rearrange your worktop, adding an inspirational montage or motto or anything else that might shake up your apathy. 'The key is to changing your usual surroundings to find the unfamiliar in the familiar..' 

4. escape your confines
those lightbulb moments require a mulling period and that playful, rebellious spirit, and your unlikely to manage that in the office with phones and blackberries pulsing all around you. 'Find a space that works... going for a walk is a  proven way of changing your mindset to a positive and playful one'

5. stick to the here and now
if you're haunted by a pile of unanswered letters of agonising over a cock-up in conference, sort things out before you start mulling. 'Creativity is impossible if you're focussed on the past or the future...believe it or not, breathing properly, steadily, rhythmically, deeply, is a great way of focussing on the moment. Watch any athlete doing it'

6. help yourself
if your brain declines to play along, kick-start it with strategies as brainstorming or De Bono's lateral thinking. 'Find the ones that work for you.. but don't get hung up on them. Creativity is not completely conscious, rational process. Daydreaming is surprisingly effective'

You don't say! We've heard it all before, but perhaps we need to keep hearing it....

It seems to be remarkably easy to lose novelty from your life. Humans seem programmed to fall into recurring patterns and habits, safeties, securities, knowns. When did you last change the furniture round?!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

miniature obsessions

This strikes me as even more amazing than the watermelon swimmer, if perhaps a bit less original in terms of breadth (it's carved out of a pencil lead...).

It's even signed!

See the rest of them at

Sunday, 24 October 2010

shrinking humanity

I was struck by this image in a book I was reading yesterday of the Munich Academy of Fine Arts at the beginning of the 20th century. Look at the size of it!!! Regardless of the problems of what they were actually teaching in there, look at the SIZE of that investment in art...

On the same day, there were two items in the Guardian. Firstly, Posy Simmonds:

And then an article about a leaked email promising an 80% cut in university teaching budgets. Am I going out of my mind? Does it really say this? P6 in the national paper:

All but medicine, science, engineering and modern language degrees could stop receiving state subsidies (the email) said.

...'the true agenda of the coalition government this week is to strip away all public support for arts, humanities and social science provision in universities...' (statement by president of National Union of Students).

Are we dreaming? Are we insane?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

can robots sing the blues?

This is an image from 3rd April, 2010 in the New Scientist. The article was called 'The nuts and bolts of creativity'. It's an image created by a robot, programmed to approximate the wrist flexes, pressure etc, of an artist drawing a face.

This has had me foxed for a long time. What does it say about how people view the idea of 'creativity'? Creativity equals skill-with-the hand-and-eye - if you copy how the fingers move, the robot is apparently being creative. But what's creative about robotic implementation of an algorithm?

The idea that creativity equals manual dexterity seems to be quite widespread, perhaps particularly amongst people who think they can't draw. What seems to be missed is the fact that a person drawing is trying to say something about how they experience the world. What looks like cleverness isn't necessarily perceived as such by the person doing it at all. They're off on their own trip, trying to do something that makes sense to them internally, privately, existentially. And, at the moment, a robot can't do this, right? A robot isn't trying to make meaning of their experience, their consciousness. Is it? Lord help us....

Monday, 4 October 2010


I know I've written about the subject of my last post quite a bit in the past, but it seems to be a theme that keeps recurring. I think when I wrote about it at the beginning of the summer, I was taking 'non-action' too literally. At that time I felt a need to actually stop trying to do anything at all; to stop trying to make paintings for a while.

I think that can make new things happen. This time though, when I chanced upon another discussion of non-action, this time in a book about Tai Chi, I find myself in a very different position. I'm now relieved to be regularly doing without question; to be doing gently and naturally, pulled back time and time again, rather than pushing and trying. Liberated, perhaps, by just experimenting with materials, instead of trying to actually make images.

I've been trying to find a way to use acrylic paint that will work for me. I hate the stuff, mostly. Shiny, plasticky, drying in seconds to an invincible hard line. Thinned down it breaks up, and not in ways I find appealing. Thick it shows brushmarks, which I have no interest in. On acrylic paper the fake canvas makes a texture I hate. On paper it seems to go kind of muddy. The day before I was reading the Tai Chi book, I had finally given up and gone back to my gorgeous water colours. I think that's why the passage resonated. The minute that prussian blue flowed out from my watery brush, I felt something inside me let go. The marks that resulted spoke to me, were alive, promised possibilities. Instead of that dead plastic.

Funny business, this painting lark. You might imagine that I'd be working away at 'improving my technique' or some other such thing. Actually, I'm squelching around in my bare feet deep in the mud of cobalt egg tempera (metaphorically speaking, you understand...). And I can't begin to tell you how deeply, existentially, satisfying that turns out to be.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

fears and fantasies

In Tai Chi we learn Non Action, the action that is not action. Non-Action is not really a great mystery. Everyone has experienced it to a greater or lesser degree: those times when we have struggled to create something, only to have it recede from us, until we give up. Then, if we are lucky, we tap some inner core of wisdom that allows us to take a deep breath and relax, and what we want seems to flow to us, or through us, like a gift from heaven, or more exactly as a gift from heaven.

We must be patient, we must wait; but wait correctly, through the creative process of Non-Action. We make ourselves accessible - to the flow of chi in our bodies and the current of the Tao in our lives. The method is to eliminate blockages. There is nothing we have to do: that to which we aspire is already there. We must dissolve blockages to let it emerge.

As for the Tao in our lives, we have to learn to stop interfering with its flow. Take writing for example. Inspiration, the muse, is another way of describing the energy of Tao. You can't force it to come, but if a writer can let go of all the fears and fantasies that darken the creative present, learn how to get out of his own way, he finds that he is like a channel for that core of truth in the deepest part of his being.

Lownenthal, W. (1991) There are no Secrets: Professor Cheng Man-chi'ing and his Tai Chi Chuan, Blue Snake Books, Berkley, California pp8-9

Forget the post-modern critique of 'core', 'truth' and 'deepest'. What can we do with these metaphors?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

why do it?

I suspect that the reason why many of us never fully make a committment to this creativity thing is because we can't somehow find a way to justify it to ourselves. How could we be so indulgent as to pursue something that appears to be entirely for ourselves, not serving others, not contributing to the greater good?

When you think about it, though, every young person starts off trying to find out 'what they want to do', and that's seen as being perfectly valid. You're somehow allowed, when young, to supposedly choose the thing 'that you really want to do'. You're even allowed to choose something crazy like art or music which won't earn you any money, if that's 'what you really want'.

The mad saddness is that with some exceptions, the vast majority of us really aren't sure, at 16, or even 18. And how on earth could we be, when you think about it? So many people end up in a rather unsatisfactory compromise, usually spurred on by cultural stories about where the money is, and it takes them some years before the fruit of such compromise appears on their tree. By this time, however, they may have mortgages, partners and children. And boy, do the stories change then. Whereas at 18 it was 'feel free to help yourself to whatever kind of life you think you fancy', a decade or so later it's more 'I/you can't possibly do something so viscerally attractive, so sumptous, so deeply, exotically enticing and satisfying. I have to do X, Y and Z, whether I feel like it or not.....'

Whatever the life is that we're living, it's a life that, at some point, we chose for ourselves. So why not choose again, later on, if the fruits on the tree start to taste bitter, or lose their flavour?

NB I know what the socialogical critique would have to say on my ideas about choice, but I might argue that it's middle-class patronising to suggest that people from different backgrounds to my own don't have a sense of agency in just the way that I do...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

inner necessity

Jim and I have been having an interesting discussion in relation to my previous post on play. We ended up talking about motivation, the push and pull to create...

I hadn't noticed that in the quote I used Jung talks about inner necessity - or I had forgotten, having recently been reading Kandinsky, who uses exactly this term:

'As a last conclusion it must be established that it is not more important whether the form is personal, national or has style; whether or not it is in accordance with major contemporary movements; whether or not it is related to many or few other forms; whether or not it stands completely by itself: but rather the most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of inner necessity' (Chipp, 1968:158).

The footnote to this quote reads: 'That is, one may not make a uniform out of a form. Works of art are not soldiers. With a given artist, a given form can be the best at one time and the worst at another. In the first case, it has grown out of the soil of inner necessity; in the second, in the soil of outer necessity: out of ambition and greed'.

What a strange thing, inner necessity. What does this mean? It seems different to me from what we think of in relation to motivation -  the stress on necessity for a start. This is not just something you fancy doing, or something you like. And, I would argue, it also isn't the same as compulsion, or obsession, both of which are perjorative and out of control. Nachmanovitch (1990) talks about this:

The creative processes of free play and concentrated practice can be derailed. They can go spinning off into addiction or procrastination, into obsession or obstruction, leaving us outside our own natural flow of activity, in states of confusion and self-doubt. Addiction is excessive, compulsive attachment; procrastination is excessive, compulsive avoidance.

Addiction is any dependency that self-perpetuates or self-catalyzes at an ever-accelerating rate. It accounts for much of the suffering we inflict on each ourselves and each other.... An artist can be addicted to an idea, stuck in a particular self-concept, a particular view of how the work must go, or what the audience may want. Some habits may appear in both addictive and non-addictive forms. Some habits may seem addictive, such as physical exercise or practicing a musical instrument, or doing some other labour of love, yet we may consider them to be positive and beneficial. There is a fine line between the pathological and the creative, between addiction and practice. What actually is the vital difference between 'I'll just have one more drink' and 'I'll just try the Bach fugue one more time'?

Addiction consumes energy and leads to slavery. Practice generates energy and leads to freedom. In practice... we obsess in order to find out more and more. ...In addiction, we obsess in order to avoid finding out something, or in order to avoid facing something unpleasant. In practice the act becomes more and more expansive; we are unwinding a thread outward and building more and more implications and connections. In addiction, we are folding inward, into more sameness, more dullness' (126-127).

Inner necessity seems to me to be like a flame. It can warm, it can catalyse, it can feed. Out of control it can consume. On the whole, of course, we don't care about the consumption of those whose works we value and romanticise - Van Gogh, for example, or that Japanese artist who paints spots in order to maintain a reasonable mental equilibrium. And, indeed, musicians and other celebrities who entertain us whilst burning up on the side.

Inner necessity can possibly also be lacking even in those who are involved in creative making and performing. This interests me. What Kandinsky calls outer necessity. It seems to me that it shows, that often you can feel it, even if only via the haziest instinct. I'm out of my depth mentioning Damien Hirst here - I know nothing about the guy - but is it possible that he moved from outer necessity (which was generating huge sucess and wealth) to inner necessity, when he recently apparently 'withdrew into a garden shed' and came out some months later with a very different kind of painting, which the critics slated mercilessly?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

colour and form

I've been thinking recently about what I've been doing these last couple of years since I started painting again. In my mind, I've been thinking that I've just been working with colour - exploring colour, diving into it in a way I never had the courage to before.

And yet when I actually look at one of the first paintings, I see that it's, of course, not just about colour at all - it's about colour and form. Now, if you were an artist, you'd say, well of course, what did you think? But let's say you're not an artist, and you haven't been reading about art, or painting. Well, then you can forget such apparently obvious things.

Perhaps it was because for most of the time I ever worked on painting or drawing, apart from at art college, it was always drawing. For years, what years there were, before the 25 year freeze, it was always line and tone. Colour was too difficult. Too dramatic. And also, colour had to work with line and form, and line and form seemed hard enough on their own.

You can see why I though it was about colour, perhaps. Colour was the thrill, the adventure, was new. But actually, the forms were new too. The scanning technique I was using gave me forms, so I was freed from the vexed question of what forms, and why.

I even began to form a philosophy, to put into words, for myself, what moved me about such forms, and how they related to something I was always trying to do in painting and drawing, by feel. Something that was always at the edge of my consciousness, always just beyond my grasp.

But I was very wary of words for any of it, so conscious that words used in relation to images had the power to demolish their source in an instant (hence my comment to Jim, some time back, about thinking and talking being able to destroy so much....). Dimly aware, also, that contemporary art is so often 'conceptual' - ideas and thinking - and that what I was doing was somehow not this. Does the concept lead the creation, in conceptual art? Is that what confounded me? Because that doesn't seem to be what I want. I don't want to make art from the mind....

Anyway, back to colour and form. For some reason, a few weeks ago, I sat down with two colours, and started a gradual mixing thing, of the sort you do at college, or did if you were at college in the 70s. So, no form at all, really just pure colour.

And it had the strangest effect on me. As each colour appeared, it was like a kind of magic, a bewitching. Not just, 'that's pretty', or, 'that's a bit different from the last one'. The colours were so different to what I'd been using, which has been dense, high quality watercolour, not only primaries, but always pre-mixed. These colours had a different quality, a quality that linked them to pre-bright-synthetic-pigment days; to dutch masters and post-impressionists. But there was something else.

I'm learning already that this kind of thing has been discussed ad infinitum. This morning I was reading and excerpt from Kandinsky's 'On the spiritual in art' and he had a whole lot of early 20th century theorising about psychological responses versus other kinds of response. I'll try to get my head around it and make some sense of it here, next time. But in the meantime, something stirred, something tried to wake up, something beckoned. Not so different from when the painting started, or from when I started experimenting with running liquid yellow into liquid blue and became mesmerised by swirling fractals. What has changed, from all those years ago, is that I seem to have begun to tap into a kind of 'beginner's mind', which makes everything look new. And the simpler it is, the more dramatic it seems to be.

Monday, 13 September 2010

unexpected angles

'In our specialised orientation to the arts, we may forget that creativity is an ecology in which all of the senses enrich one another.

If you have no experience in the arts, you are ripe for every possible opportunity. What aspects of your life seem most antithetical to art? These areas may be the most amenable to transformation because their creative potential has been obscured'   (Mcniff,  1998; 58).

In other words, you're freer to create in areas where you've no experience.

I just love these food creations. Who would have thought of doing this?

Or this?


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